Thai Massage: A Guide

Captain Edward J. Smith’s reported final words as the Titanic went down were ‘Be British boys, be British’.  He was not, as common sense would suggest, providing charades themes to members of the bridge crew nor making an early statement of support for comedy fascists (aka UKIP) but rather commenting on a British man’s most treasured and enduring quality. The stoic denial of personal discomfort, danger or fear and the suppression of outward display of these things. Reserved acceptance of one’s fate with upper lip firmly stiffened against the wind.

This is very much an idea rooted in the age of Empire. It smacks of Kitchener and Clive, of Livingston and Scott, of Baden-Powell and Lord Uxbridge (who, having had his right leg blown mostly off by French cannon fire shouted, ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” to which Wellington replied “By God, so you have!”). Men who endured hardship, pain and native tribesmen (not unreasonably) attacking them for trying to massacre and/or convert their population.

I would, however, suggest that even these products of overt masculine and perceived cultural superiority would have crumbled at the merest touches of a wizened and aged Thai lady who works in a massage shop.

The Thai massage is something of an odd beast. It is a relaxing event afterwards. At the time it can feel as if you have personally affronted the masseuse in some unknowable way and here is her opportunity for revenge. You’ll lie there contemplating all the bad things you have ever done and whether this is karmic payback.

Many people claim to have been given a Thai massage in their home countries, these are usually pale facsimiles of the real thing. Usually overly gentle and with the use of oils. Like French food, Spanish wine and Dutch pot it is best sampled in its native land.

But even in the Land of Smiles not all massages are created equal. This handy guide (which you can print off at no extra cost) will hopefully ensure that tourists travelling to the Kingdom will be able to understand what the hell is happening to them and how can that tiny old lady exert so much force on my arrrgggghhhhhh.

What is a Thai massage?

A true Thai massage is pain. Crashing, horrific, sweat inducing pain. I used to watch war films where the main guy gets captured and tortured thinking ‘pffft, I could hold out – I play rugby, I know what pain is’. Oh the innocence of youth. Now, all the enemy would have to do is walk in a smiling elderly Thai lady wearing brown fisherman’s pants and a beige t-shirt and I’d be offering up secrets before she had finished saying sawadee ka.

Not a Thai massage. You can tell because a) lack of clothing, b) gentle hands on back and c) the person receiving the massage isn't sobbing in the mattress.
Not a Thai massage. You can tell because a) lack of clothing, b) gentle hands on back and c) the person receiving the massage isn’t sobbing in the mattress.

But isn’t it supposed to be nice?

Oh foolish farang. You assumed that because it had ‘massage’ in the title that you would have a nice relaxing time of it. Nope. If you wanted nice and relaxing you should have asked for an oil massage. If it’s really bad you can bite the mat or table your lying on.

Well, why do you have them then?

Because honestly, there is nothing like it when they finish. All of the knots in your body are gone and you float about for about an hour feeling like rubber. This is a good thing.

Traditional Thai massage. You can tell because a) it looks painful and b) Brett the Hitman Heart had a similar finishing move.
Traditional Thai massage. You can tell because a) it looks painful and b) Brett the Hitman Heart had a similar finishing move.

What are the different types of massage places I can go to?

Thai massage parlours break down into roughly three types (with some crossover).

Type One: Front For a Knocking Shop. 

Obviously Thailand (Pattaya and Bangkok in particular) has a reputation for being a bit on the seedy side. This reputation is utterly deserved as there a number of areas where very rude things occur. Most of the time its easy enough to avoid but sometimes you can get caught unawares. Signs that you are in a brothel rather than a place to get a massage are:

1) The ‘masseuses’ are wearing very little clothing and/or are naked.
2) They serve alcoholic drinks.
3) They insist on massaging your genitals as a priority.

I would suggest leaving very quickly unless that’s your thing. I mean, I don’t want to judge but, really?

Type Two: In An International Hotel.

These are often very expensive and not really true to the actual thing. The problem comes with the staff obviously not wanting to upset anyone or get into trouble.

Picture the scene, some overweight American businessman is on his first trip to the kingdom and stops at the hotel spa thinking it will help him relax and ease him over the jet-lag so he can be ready for that big meeting tomorrow. He changes reluctantly into the pyjamas that have been provided which, as they are too small for his corpulent frame, have the effect of making him look like an obese five-year-old.

The masseuse, a four-foot-nothing sixty year old from Isan, looks at the lump of rolling flesh laid out on the table, nods determinedly, cracks her knuckles and heroically starts to manipulate Gigantor’s legs.

Barely thirty seconds pass before El Chubbster yells out confused and in pain. His sickening screams interrupt the tranquil pling, plong music and brings the hotel manager scampering from his office on the fourteenth floor.

The manager arrives to see the rolling lard arse curled up in the corner of the room, towel pulled up over his supine and quivering form, arm outstretched and finger trembling slightly, pointing towards the masseuse.

“She hurt me” he says.

Very shortly the manager of the hotel is offering free drinks which cost him money, the American businessman feels that his meeting won’t go well because he’s upset and that will cost him money and the masseuse is without a job which means she can no longer support the family farm back in Isan. Oldest granddaughter might have to head to Type One massage parlour to make ends meet.

Why run the risk? Just give the stupid farang a gentle rub down and call it a Thai massage. And charge over a thousand baht for it.

Type Three: The Real Deal.

This is where you get to pit your strength of will against the machinations of an elderly Thai lady.

You’ll walk in and a heady mixture of lemongrass and Tiger Balm will hit your nostrils. I think this will always be the smell that reminds of Thailand for two reasons. Firstly, it’s pretty unique. Secondly, it’s a damn sight more appealing than a festering khlong. Generally you’ll get the option of a one or two hour massage. Accept this will hurt and go for two hours. It should cost you no more than 500 baht (350 ish for one hour). You’ll be led to a small darkened cubicle with a soft mattress or mat on the floor (some places will wash your feet at this point too). Soft pyjamas will lie there and you change into them. Just place your clothes to the side of the mat and lie down facing the floor.

You’ll have time in the gloom to just think and listen to the gentle music that will undoubtedly be being played. Use this time to enjoy not feeling any discomfort. Trust me on this.

See what I mean. He could totally have charged 350 baht for this.
See what I mean. He could totally have charged 350 baht for this.

Shortly, a Thai (usually) lady will come in, say sawadee ka and wai you. Gently but firmly she will pull on your legs and push your ankles down. She may also briefly rub your back. This is (I presume) to identify where you are most tight so they can spend the most time on that area. You’ll wish they didn’t but they will.

Then try to relax as two hours passes, flitting between brutal agony and utter bliss. I promise you that you’ll feel incredible afterwards. There is also a moment of transcendence when you try to disassociate the physical pain you feel with your body, attempting to make it academic. “Oh, look at that,” you’ll say to yourself “she has most of her elbow in my inner thigh. That certainly smarts.” Or “Humm, I’ve never before seen that side of my leg without a mirror. How curious.” Occasionally you may even say “arrgghhhhhhh”.

Just remember to relax, breath and be British.

36 Replies to “Thai Massage: A Guide”

  1. Can you believe I have been living in Thailand for 2 years and have so far avoided having a Thai massage?! It isn’t just my fear that it will be a sharp shooter affair (yeah I loved WWF as a child and no I’m not talking about saving Pandas) but also the fear of walking into the first of your massage parlour descriptions. My first city of residence was Hat Yai; the seedy capital of the south with many establishments in existense purely to provide a particular service to the Malaysian businessmen who would frequent the city after hours. Now I’m in Phuket where everything seems to be seedy and/or over priced! I know it is something I need to do, a rite of passage as it were. Soon (she says…), soon.


    1. It certainly isn’t cheap. The wife and I (who was very pregnant) got a taxi that travelled less than two kilometres and it cost 800 baht. I tried arguing the toss but a pointed look from my dearly beloved made me shut up and grudgingly pay the money.

      And yes, you should get a massage. Ask friends if they know a decent place which doesn’t specialise in happy endings.


  2. This was hilarious. I love your WWF references. Of course! Why didn’t I think about that!? I wrote something similar:

    Ahhh, the adventure of getting a Thai massage…my b/f and I always make it a habit to talk about how it was, and what he or she did wrong/right, etc. Sukothai was by far the worst place for a massage…I did feel like I had personally did something wrong. What did I do? But I endured, damn it, I endured.

    And even though they are agents of evil, I always feel bad when I smell a sweaty farang or a big boy saunter into the shop…


    1. I love your post – it’s fun (and very true). It is an adventure in that you never know what you’re going to get. But when you find that place that gets it right…just the best. Cheers for coming and checking out the blog 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey, thanks for finding my blog about life in Thailand today. Have you tried Saxophone pub yet at Victory Monument? Great live music, three bands a night from 8pm, good value Thai and Western food – see the link on my site. Best to get there before 8.30 if you want a good seat.
    About massage, try the professional massage establishment in Soi 4, Satthorn – it’s on the left about 100m after Satthorn Vista Marriott. Last time I was there earlier this year, a Thai massage cost 500 Baht, for 2 hours of peaceful pain and suffering. Wonderful. I’ve never felt so good. There is nothing seedy about this one.


    1. Are you on commission? 🙂

      Unfortunately, the little one has limited how much we can head to cool gig spaces. Maybe one day…

      We have a great little Thai-Chinese massage place just at the gate of our mooban which is a cracker – literally.


  4. It seems Thai massage can get across the river ok. I visit a few spots when I make my annual run to Savanakeht, Lao. I have some old spinal injuries, so I do ask that they start out with moderation. Sometimes I just get a foot massage; sometimes I can’t tell the difference between a foot massage and a full body massage.

    A few months ago a neighbor down the street started offering her adjustments. we get the in village discount. 100B an hour.


  5. must be a 1000 stories about the thai massage The best Thai massage was at the southern bus station in BKK had a terrible headache body hurt all over the older lady did an great job left no headache and did not hurt anywhere. My experience is you may be a little sore later and can feel the stretching but not PAIN. if they know what they are doing no pain 9 years and many many massages if she is good no pain!


  6. Thank you for sharing this! I have plans for Thailand in 2015 and feel much better about seeking an authentic Thai massage. I had a very painful (but tension-relaxing) one in South Africa this year so I know what to expect!


  7. We visited Thailand several times, years ago, but never tried the massage. However, I did let them place a python around my neck and take my picture. My neck did feel better after that. Thanks for following Humorous Interludes. I am humbled and delighted. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Haha. I have to concur. I had a Thai massage in Phuket last year, and every thing you say, was true for me. I foolishly asked for the “deep tissue massage” and although my masseur was not an older lady, she still had the skill set of a career sadist. It was the worst massage I have ever had, and it was the best massage I have ever had!
    I love Thailand, and I am quite remiss about not visiting as much and about writing more about it. Thanks for re-awakening my memory.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post Hitch and pretty well spot on. I consider myself lucky as I have a masseuse who lives round the corner in my village in Chiang Mai. She charges 150 baht an hour, the going rate in Chiang Mai, and she is brilliant. I feel sorry for tourists in Phuket because it is difficult to find a good one. They are there but not prevalent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks and you’re right the touristy places can be hard to get a decent one.

      150 an hour? Bloody hell that’s a bargain! I’d have one every morning for that if I thought my body could hold up to it.


  10. So true, so true… I lived 3 years in BKK and became a fan of the Watpo massages. Those guys are real pro, and it’s quite cheap. Nothing fancy at all, just the massage (and the subsequent pain 😉 Thanks for sharing this post, makes me want to go there again!!! Oh, last one really great and recommended by my Thai doc was the great Dr Foot on Sukhumvit 39. No I really want to go back :/


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